A common food dye that gives M and Ms and Gatorade their blue tint might help in treating spinal cord injury, reveals a new study.
It has shown promise for preventing the additional and serious secondary damage that immediately follows a traumatic injury to the spine.
In the new study, researchers found that compound called Brilliant Blue G (BBG) stops the cascade of molecular events that cause secondary damage to the spinal cord in the hours following a spinal cord injury.
In the August 2004 cover story of Nature Medicine, scientists detailed how ATP, the vital energy source that keeps our body's cells alive, quickly pours into the area surrounding a spinal cord injury shortly after it occurs, and paradoxically kills off what are otherwise healthy and uninjured cells.
This helped understand how secondary injury occurs in spinal cord patients.
It also laid out a potential way to stop secondary spinal injury, by using oxidized ATP, a compound known to block ATP's effects.
The rats with damaged spinal cords who received an injection of oxidized ATP were shown to recover much of their limb function, to the point of being able to walk again, ambulating effectively if not gracefully.
It is previously known that the receptor called P2X7 plays a role in regulating the deaths of immune cells such as macrophages.
In the new study, the research team led by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, professor of Neurosurgery and director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center discovered that P2X7 is carried in abundance by neurons in the spinal cord.
It allows ATP to latch onto motor neurons and send them the flood of signals that cause their deaths, worsening the spinal cord injury and resulting paralysis.
So the team set out to find a compound that not only would prevent ATP from attaching to P2X7, but could be delivered intravenously.
In a fluke, Nedergaard discovered that BBG.
"Because BBG is so similar to this commonly used blue food dye, we felt that if it had the same potency in stopping the secondary injury as oxidized ATP, but with none of its side effects, then it might be great potential treatment for cord injury," Nedergaard added.
The team found that an intravenous injection of BBG proved to significantly reduce secondary injury in spinal cord-injured rats, who improved to the point of being able to walk, though with a limp.
However, Nedergaard cautions that while these findings offer a promising new way of treating spinal cord injury, it is still years away from possible application in patients.
The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.